HOW WILL RICHARD CHILDRESS RACING FARE IN VEGAS?
Whether we were heading to Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend or not, Richard Childress Racing was always bound to have a solid run.
Following the first two races of the 2016 Sprint Cup Series season at Daytona and Atlanta, Austin Dillon has a ninth and 11th while Paul Menard has back-to-back 18ths and veteran Ryan Newman with an 11th and 24th, respectively.
Newman, specifically, showed solid potential in Atlanta’s 500-miler, starting fourth and averaging a ninth-place spot before suffering a pit road penalty and blown tire. Rocket Man has four top 5s and eight top-10 finishes in his 15 Las Vegas starts. A third place last year plus last week’s burst of optimism forces me to keep one eye on No. 31 on Sunday.
Coming into the third round, I find it easy to put all three drivers on the must-watch list. Dillon and the No. 3 Chevrolet team impressed the field in the latter half of 2015 at the 1.5-mile races as he proved to have the pace to battle in the top 5. Las Vegas can be a perfect spot for the third-year driver to continue his consistency.
Menard, though often forgotten through years of consistent top-20 speed, has made waves at Las Vegas in recent years. Showcasing his usual early-season strength, Menard is on a run of five consecutive top-12 finishes at Vegas, including a third in 2014. He and sophomore crew chief Justin Alexander can make a return to the top 5 on Sunday if he is able to adapt to the new package.
WHAT EFFECT WITH THURSDAY TEST HAVE FOR TEAMS ON SUNDAY?
Yeah, yeah, it’s testing. Basically practice with even less incentive.
With a new rules package at everybody’s disposal, however, the teams can take something out of Thursday’s test sessions, some things that can make an impact on race day.
One thing very important is the tire combinations. Last week in Atlanta saw tremendous tire wear that could not have played a larger factor in deciding the winner, with Jimmie Johnson opting to pit nine laps early to build up time, taking advantage of the rest of the field’s slower tires.
Can some of that be credit to Atlanta rough surface? Sure. This time around at Las Vegas, we could see something similar but we really lack the information, a.k.a. the data the teams may have a hold of after Thursday’s testing.
Scrolling down the Thursday speeds, it was a mess to find the big Sprint Cup Series names as it was a mishmash of different teams in the top dozen or so. Whether or not this will blend into this weekend’s action remains to be seen.
The package has seen three tracks in Kentucky, Darlington and Atlanta. In other words, it hasn’t seen anything quite like Vegas in terms of race conditions. Yes, Vegas is a 1.5-mile long D-shaped oval like Kentucky and Atlanta but the racing surface reeks of aero grip and lacks the jerky nature of the other two. Could Sunday’s outcome end up a surprise? Don’t be shocked.
WHO WILL EXTEND TOP 10 STREAKS IN LAS VEGAS?
Unlike many motorsports, NASCAR offers some of the most top-notch competition that makes even a top-10 finish a handshake-worthy result.
By 2016’s standards, a top-10 finish means joining the top 25 percent of the starting field. It also means a guaranteed gain toward making the 16-driver Chase Grid.
After the opening two rounds of the season, five drivers have come home satisfied with top-10 finishes: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch and Martin Truex, Jr. A repeating theme is the presence of two Stewart-Haas Racing cars and three of the five Joe Gibbs Racing cars and affiliates — two of which, Harvick and Truex, began last year on a similar run of races, with Truex surpassing every driver with seven straight top 10s to start 2015 while Harvick had five top-2 results to start.
But that was last year. For 2016, the five drivers are heading to Las Vegas in hopes of keeping strength.
Harvick is the defending event winner and comes off a dominant Atlanta afternoon last week. With that, he is a safe bet to add a third top 10.
The Busch brothers in Kurt and Kyle are returning to their home track this weekend. Kyle won here in 2009 while older brother Kurt is still out for win No. 1. Both will make their first starts at home since 2014 as they missed last year’s event under separate circumstances.
With Kyle’s post-title momentum in full swing with back-to-back thirds, he is set to go for a third top 10, while Kurt could have a battle to stay in touch with Kyle.
Lastly is Carl Edwards, who joins JGR teammate Kyle Busch as the only drivers to have top 5s in both races this year. Being a two-time track winner – this time in a package he will die for – Cousin Carl will easily grab another top 10 as he can be the one to beat on Sunday.
WILL VEGAS BE A WARM WELCOME-BACK FOR BRIAN VICKERS?
With the Daytona 500 two weeks behind him, Brian Vickers is back behind the wheel at a non-plate track, ending a nearly one-year drought of not using a brake pedal behind the wheel of a racecar in place of an injured Tony Stewart.
The return of one of the series’ feel-good stories is guaranteed to attract NASCAR nation on Sunday. The performance of the 32-year-old, however, is what is being put to the test.
Three straight top-15 finishes at Vegas can and will lead to some added confidence prior to Sunday’s Kobalt 400. The car he is in took the checkered flag at the track in 2012, with Stewart fending off Jimmie Johnson in the closing stages.
The time away from the track is what brings concern. They do say that sometimes a break from your routine is the very thing you need – and this quote may fit Vickers in this situation – but in this quickly changing sport, a lot can get lost in translation from season to season.
The pressure of driver Stewart’s number will be a light weight for Vickers to pull. Keeping up to pace with the top 20 on Sunday, though, could turn out to be a dumbbell.